Fitz and the Tantrums: Synths, Goths and Hooks | Q&A

Goth kids dig Fitz and the Tantrums.

That was one thing that surprised the group, especially for a band whose debut album was considered a must-have for any “Stax and Motown fetishist”.

The LA group tore into the soul, indie, and alternative pop scenes with Pickin’ Up the Pieces, their independently-released album. It dripped with sweet references to northern soul and classic Motown, but was dressed sharply with catchy fresh hooks by frontman Michael Fitzpatrick (aka “Fitz”).

Four years after gaining a wide fanbase of teeny-boppers, soul-heads and bluesmen, fickle college hipsters, toddlers, and goths, mostly due to the band’s fervent touring — they returned to the studio and flipped the script. Where PIckin’ Up the Pieces  had a dusty vintage vibe, their latest release, More Than Just a Dream, has a more contemporary sheen to it. You may recognize one of their singles, “The Walker,” from Ellen DeGeneres’ theatrical Oscars promo.

The distinct throwback style of their debut release has proven to not define Fitz and The Tantrums. More Than Just a Dream shows that their knack for infectious melodies and catchy songwriting serves is the band’s true calling card- on top of their famously energetic live performances.

Fitz and the Tantrums are headed to Council Bluffs, where they will perform at Stir Concert Cove on Sunday, the 27th. Buy tickets for the show here.

Seeking a wider range of sounds and textures than on Pickin’ Up the Pieces, which revolved around Fitz’s organ and old piano, The Tantrum’s keyboardist, Jeremy Ruzumna, seized the golden opportunity to break into his vast collection of synths and keyboards, analog and digital.

Ruzumna took some time out of his “short break” from their summer tour at home in Los Angeles to talk with Hear Nebraska about musical influences beyond ‘60s Motown, the process behind their latest album, and the group’s large and diverse fanbase. And synthesizers, of course.

Hear Nebraska: Now that you’re home in LA, are you guys rehearsing, preparing for upcoming shows?

Jeremy Ruzumna: No, it’s such a short break. When we rehearse, we try to do it on the road as much as we can. Because our downtime is so precious, so we can see our families and relax for a few days.

HN: Do you guys rework the show on-the-go, onstage?

JR: We still do a few tweaks — once in a while we add a song or cover, but the biggest changes to the show are that we’ve been able to up the production value, much more technical than before; it’s more of a spectacle now. “Spectacle” may be a little strong, but we have a great lighting guy we’ve been working with now … it’s a lot different than when we first started out, when we had like a small cardboard backdrop.

HN: Has the group’s sound developed and grown with the higher production value?

JR: I mean, we had it back in the day when we were playing singer-songwriters clubs, Fitz was still jumping in the air … so it was almost like we were always prepping for bigger stages in a funny type of way. So in that sense nothing’s really changed, we’re doing what we want to do, but now we have a bigger platform to do it on.

HN: So you’ve always played as if you’re playing to a thousand people, even though you may be playing to a hundred?

JR: Yes, exactly. Sometimes there were just four people. Including my mom.

You guys have distinct influences from classic Motown soul and ‘80s pop, but has anyone influenced how you perform live?

When I first started getting into all these genres by myself, I found James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix and for me that was my initial introduction into soul. Rufus and other ‘70s soul, as well. Prince was a big eye-opener for me, performance-wise, and musicality-wise.

Because Fitz & The Tantrums crosses several genres and styles, do you enjoy seeing lots of different types of people at your shows, who are all interested in different genres of music?

Oh yeah. It’s pretty crazy. Ever since the very beginning, we’ve actually been astonished at the range of people; we remember the first time we started getting goth people at our shows. We didn’t expect that, especially after our first album. It’s pretty cool, actually.

Do you have any idea why that is?

Well, on the first album it makes more sense, our music had a throwback sound to Motown, so I could understand the older generation coming out. And then also there’s something about our melodies … if you take the melody for “MoneyGrabber,” if you break it down to its essence and hum it, you realize it’s actually a nursery rhyme. Kind of like a playground chant. I always said that one of my barometers for seeing if a song is catchy is if little kids like it. If they do, it’s a big thing, because they are on that primal level.

Is it hard to write those catchy, yet simple songs? They seem deceptively simple.

It definitely takes work. But sometimes it just comes out — like with “Breakin’ the Chains of Love,” it just poured out of [Fitz] in a hour or so. But other times it takes work. Sometimes you have to come back and try it four, five, or six times. You could have the idea, and a year later, you revisit it.

What was one of the songs on [the most recent album] that took the longest to put together, or longest lifespan?

Our first single had an interesting journey. Noelle [Scaggs] came in with that song, shifted it, crafted it, then we recorded it and made it as big as we possibly could, and our producer Tony Hoffer loved it, everybody loved it. As far as we were concerned, the song was finished — in fact, the whole record was finished. Then we started getting notes back from the label about that one song, and how they wanted it to be a little bigger. We tried every trick we could, and eventually it worked better, and ended being a successful song. But that one definitely took a lot of tweaking.

Reportedly, a lot of dancing goes on onstage. Is that another barometer for testing how hot a song is?
I think that all goes back to that primal level. A lot of the time, you don’t even know you’re dancing. I have a little joke called “I.H.N.” — involuntary head nod factor. If that happens, I think you have that formula.

The Tantrum’s debut release Pickin’ Up the Pieces was built around Fitz’ raspy organ and old piano. Was this recent album built in a similar fashion, or was the process completely different from the ground up?

Yeah, on the second record, we very much decided that the first album worked around the piano and organ. It was a very specific sound. For the second record, we really didn’t know what we wanted to do, initially. We tried anything. We did everything — we still used vintage keyboards and synthesizers, but we also used a lot of extremely modern stuff. All the bells and whistles; we decided to go for it. That was the big thing on this record- we allowed ourselves to get bigger, we allowed ourselves to experiment more; and it was a big risk. We really weren’t sure about if our audience was with us or not. Some definitely thought of us as a Motown throwback band, but we wanted to do more than just one thing.

What were your go-to synthesizers you did use on the record?
One of the main synthesizers for the record was The Korg MS20. It’s reissued now, but the one we used was an old ‘70s version of it. It’s a really unique and interesting sounding keyboard and that actually was one of the main components of the album. You did say synths, didn’t you? I was going to say I have a huge collection — I’m a big collector, and I’ve used as many as I possibly could. One of them actually is the Roland D50, which I never thought I could use that synth again, but our producer had one. This was the synth used in Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” I never thought that synth would be cool. It ended up being really cool.

Is there another influence that many fans wouldn’t expect you to have?

I don’t think people necessarily realize how into electronic music we are. Because, again, we are often categorized as “soul” and “throwback,” but actually a lot of us are into electronic stuff. Major Lazer was a big influence when we were making the record.

Are you going to ask them to do a remix of one of your songs?

We would love that.

More Than Just a Dream plays like a party on wax. What does the band spin at your own parties?
You know, it’s a mish-mash. Everything from Flying Lotus to Washed Out. M83 — a little known fact, our sax player played the solo on “Midnight City.” Yeah, that’s James King. Oh, and Future Islands, as well.

That’s some chill, vibe-y stuff. Do you guys listen to that to down yourself after your high octane shows?
It is very vibe-y, and I think the reason is our life is really hectic.

How so?
I think that never being home more than four days at a time might factor into that.

So how do you center yourselves?
For me, I’ve toured so much, it’s not like what people think: a big party after every show. My ritual is to usually do the show, then take a shower, get in my bunk, and read a book. And go to sleep. As boring as that sounds, you really have to take care of yourself. You have to think about staying healthy. If you’re sick one day, you still have to get onstage. I’ve had strep throat and other major medical issues, and we couldn’t take a break. Had to get onstage and still do it. So the ritual for me is to chill out and read a book. Really exciting, I know.

Those days when you had strep throat onstage, what made it easier for you — if [anything] at all?

Usually, you have to go with it. It’s like being a Navy Seal. You have to find your strength, go out there, and make sure to go to sleep after the show. I don’t know how to do it — I just go into a zone. Probably like how dogs are, like, when they die and they sort of sneak away to a bush somewhere. And they’re in a neither here-nor-there mental state … kind of like that.